The “Grand Theft Auto” franchise has always pushed the cutting edge of gaming, so putting it on Nintendo’s decidedly underpowered DS handheld console initially seems akin to making the next Pixar film in claymation. But the creative minds at Rockstar have pulled it off by tailoring “Chinatown Wars” to the DS’ limitations — and advantages — giving the game a retro, arcade-like feel while adding unique touch-screen elements that enhance the experience. Easily one of the best DS games released to date, its success will be a test of whether gamers embrace hard M content on a kid-friendly device.
With each successive entry, Rockstar’s signature franchise has consistently become grander and more impressive, culminating in last spring’s epic “Grand Theft Auto IV.” But “epic” isn’t doable on the DS. So Rockstar has instead crafted a title with more limited, but no less clever, narrative and gameplay ambitions. Instead of feeling like necessary compromises, “Chinatown Wars’ ” top-down perspective (not seen since 1999’s “GTA 2”), lack of voiceovers and imprecise controls are simply the right design choices for the content.
The basic narrative formula is incredibly familiar to “GTA” veterans — a foreigner arrives in Liberty City and quickly finds himself caught up in a gang war, doing jobs for unsavory and amusing characters while on a personal quest. But Hong Kong native Huang Lee is not ridden with pathos like “GTA IV” protag Niko Bellic. He’s a smartass who doesn’t take anything or anyone he finds in Liberty City too seriously.
Rockstar has great fun with that attitude, using Lee to mock many of the cliches one might expect in a game called “Chinatown Wars.” When his uncle talks about the family honor being “besmirched,” Lee responds with a laugh, reminding him that it’s “2009, not 1403.” Rockstar’s trademark portrayal of the culturally respected as corrupt and hypocritical plays out in genuinely funny ways, with old Chinese men spouting lines like, “I knew a proverb about that once, but I forgot it.”
Huang Lee’s diffidence also matches the gameplay, which doesn’t even feign seriousness. There’s nothing remotely resembling subtlety in the gunfights, which essentially require players to blast away enemies as quickly and brutally as possible. Driving is similarly chaotic, with an emphasis on bashing cars and easy-to-accomplish drive-by shootings. The overall feel is that of an arcade game, with short, intense missions that perfectly fit the way most players use the DS while on the go.
The only major drawback to the loose controls is that the Liberty City police are as aggressive as they were in “GTA IV,” making it too difficult to avoid the distracting chases that can result from a light tap against a cop car.
But “Chinatown Wars” isn’t all “GTA”-lite — the DS’ two screens and touch-screen capabilities provide several notable advantages. Perusing the city map and marking destinations is significantly easier, for instance, as is selecting weapons in the heat of battle. Developers at Rockstar Leeds also added touch-screen minigames for tasks like hotwiring a car — accomplished in “GTA IV” with the touch of a button, turning the franchise’s title into a satisfyingly tactile experience.
“Chinatown Wars” still blows away the competition the way all “Grand Theft Auto” games do: with its sheer size. Not only is the core story impressively long for a DS title, but there are loads of optional tasks, from a drug-dealing economy to hijackings to shooting competitions. There are even multiplayer modes, including races and gun battles with nearby friends and the ability to trade items and favorite locations with anyone on a wi-fi connection.